Is your writing story-driven or purpose-based? Do you start with a story in mind or a message, a topic or idea you want to explore?
I guess, both can come concurrently, but when I write, I’m always first driven by a question – ‘how does that happen?’ – then the story develops from that initial seed.
For example, my first novel Rohypnol is about a group of guys who drug and rape girls at nightclubs – that idea came about because I’d heard and read reports of an increasing number of drink-spiking cases in Melbourne, where I lived, and I couldn’t understand why someone would want to do that. Adding to this, there was a notorious case of a group of gang rapists in Sydney, which I was even more confused about – that one person would do such a thing was horrendous, but that a group could do the same together, and not one of them stopped it, that was even more confounding.
That then lead to me trying to imagine a possible scenario where something like this could occur, to try and understand what was happening, why it would happen. Now, there’s always going to be nuance and variability within any story, you can’t possibly explore every element, particularly of such a terrible crime, as it’s beyond the realm of most people’s understanding. But what could lead to that thing occurring?
A simple newspaper headline is never the story, and the only way make sense of anything, even something you might find horrific, is to contemplate it. For me, writing is thinking, clarifying my thoughts, trying to understand more of the world and the people within it.
For my second novel, One, I wanted to explore the extremes people go to when they’re in love, the fact that some people will destroy their own lives, will risk everything for even the basic acknowledgment of another.
In another, in progress, story, I’m looking at the illusion of control, how things can change in a moment, and how your past defines your future more than you think.
For me, it’s important to have these defining purpose objectives to keep my story on track. While you might want to explore certain developments or character shifts, it’s also important to remember what it is you’re trying to achieve, when you’re trying to say, and what you want to leave your reader with. Story is still absolutely crucial – you’re not going to be able to deliver any message without a compelling narrative – as is the writing itself, ensuring each sentence works within itself, and maintains the flow of the character voice, or voices.
This also helps when you find yourself stuck and/or struggling to resolve plot points – going back to the core message can help you re-frame your work and see it in terms of what you want to communicate.
That’s not to say this is the only way to write – everyone has a different approach, and different objectives with their work – but I think most authors will find, at some stage, that there’s a clear message they want to explore, an idea that best captures the core of what the story is about, even if that’s not how they initially started out working on it.
And once you do find it, that core, driving element, it can greatly help clarify and solidify your work.